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Joe Bennett, The Sparkletones, "Black Slacks," Elvis Presley and Joe's Grateful Dead Connection

Posted: Jun 02, 2009

Joe Bennett was a hometown hero in Spartanuburg, SC many years before The Marshall Tucker Band was formed.

At the age of four, he tap-danced his way across the stage of the Cannon’s Elementary School in Spartanburg, South Carolina wearing Coke bottle caps on his shoes for taps, and accompanied by his mother on piano. Today, he is turning out albums filled with original country music, as well as teaching guitar lessons to aspiring young axe-slingers at Smith Music House in his home town. But, somewhere in between  then and now, Joe Bennett was a rock and roll star.

Bennett and his band, The Sparkletones, cracked the Top Ten back in 1957 with an original song called “Black Slacks.” The boys from Spartanburg, South Carolina, lead by seventeen year old Joe, the oldest  band member, found themselves performing with people like Connie Francis, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Pat Boone and countless others. The Sparkletones appeared twice on The Ed Sullivan Show  and three times on American Bandstand, and held the country spellbound with a new type of music that fused hillbilly country, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, called “rockabilly.”  One of The Sparkletones’ most memorable shows found the boys rocking out in front of a very special guest.

“We loved Elvis Presley,” says Joe Bennett, relaxing in his studio, just before starting on a mile-long line of students. “We all loved Elvis. We had just gotten a record in the top ten and we were hot. Our manager knew that Elvis was appearing across town, and he went and talked to Tom Parker, and told him, ‘Hey, I’ve got some kids from Spartanburg, South Carolina who are playing in town. I’m going to get you a table and reserve it.  Do you think Elvis would come?’ And he said ‘Sure, I’ll get him there.’  We didn’t know anything about it. So the curtain opens and the bright lights are hitting us in the eyes, and we’re hearing all this commotion from down in front.  People squealing and such.  And we were dancing and rocking and rolling. Then the lights come down and there he is, sitting right there at the front of the stage, Elvis.  We went to pieces. I couldn’t even remember how to make a G-seventh chord. My knees were knockin’ home sweet home. And he’s sittin’ out there laughing and enjoying himself, with about five or ten body guards around him.  He stayed for the whole show, and then after it was over he came back to the dressing room. The first thing he did was to grab one of our costumes. We had those custom-made costumes with the sparkles and the stand-up collars.  And in later years, Elvis wore similar costumes on stage.”

The boys had been discovered by talent scout Bobby Cox, who was so impressed by the band that he quit his job at CBS Records to become their manager.  In a whirlwind of instant fame, The Sparkletones were signed to ABC Paramount, followed by a recording session the very next day, in which they recorded the Bennett-Denton penned rockabilly tune, “Black Slacks,” which would become their biggest hit, and resurface almost 40 years later in the Disney film, The Rescuers Down Under, performed by the late John Candy. Local radio legend Cliff “Farmer” Gray played “Black Slacks” on WSPA Radio, making him the first person in the country to play the song.

The record company had a song that they wanted The Sparkletones to put out as a follow up to “Black Slacks.” The band was slated to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they had another song, written by Sparky Childress, that they were thinking about playing on the broadcast. The record company told them that if they played that song instead of the one they had chosen, The Sparkletones would never be  back on Ed Sullivan, and they would pretty much be ticked off at the band.

For whatever reason, the band’s manager decided to let them play Sparky’s song. That blew everything up for The Sparkletones.

With several failed attempts at coming up with a second blockbuster hit, The Sparkletones played for a while, and eventually disbanded.  But there were no regrets.  They had bathed in the warm light of success longer than most people ever dream of. 

Joe Bennett went into the Air Force in 1960 as an Air Traffic Controller, continuing to perform during off duty times.  In the mid-sixties, he taught music at Clark Music in Spartanburg, and then he transferred to Carlos, California to work with Mickey Hart (The Grateful Dead) at Hart Music Company.

Joe had met Mickey while serving in the Air Force. In the book, Conversations with the Dead, Mickey talks about his meeting with Joe, and the band they formed, Joe & The Jaguars.

After the breakup of The Sparkletones, Joe had become disillusioned with music. Leaving his guitar at home in Spartanburg, he joined the Air Force and got sent over to Spain. About three or four months later, he became tremendously bored, and decided to call his daddy and get him to send him his guitar and small studio amp.

One night Joe was sitting in the PX, scorching through some rock classics like “Johnny B. Goode,” when this guy with a pair of drum sticks in his back pocket walked in and began to watch him and listen attentively.  It was Mickey Hart. Hart had been a world champion in the drum and bugle corp, and when he heard Bennett rocking out, he was drawn in by the sound.

Hart didn’t really know anything about rock and roll at the time. He had been dealing with elevens and fourteens, lots of off-beat drum and bugle formations. Probably no one present at that meeting would have guessed that Hart one soon be known world-wide for his drum work with The Dead.

 One thing lead to another, and Joe and Mickey struck up a friendship. Shortly thereafter, Joe told Mickey that he was starting another band, and needed a drummer. That band became Joe & The Jaguars, and the rest is, as they say, history. To this day, Mickey credits Joe Bennett with teaching him how to rock.

 Mickey got out of the service first, and went to live with his Grandparents in Long Island, New York. Joe bought a Volkswagon in Spain, and sent it over to Long Island for Mickey to drive around until he got out of the service.  The Thanksgiving when Joe got out of the service, he came to Long Island and spent the Holiday with Mick’s grandparents. Then he drove the VW home to Spartanburg.

About three or four months later, Mickey’s dad, who had been separated from his mother since Hart was a child, called to inform Mickey that he was running a music store in Carlos, California called Hart Music. He invited his son to come out and workwith him.

Pretty soon, the store was in full swing, and they started needing teachers. Joe was the only guitarist Mickey knew. He called Joe, and said “hey, come on out.” Joe had gotten married, and was living near Cannon’s Campground. He took a look around and decided nothing was happening at home, and decided to go for it.

Joe spent about three years in the mid-sixties living out in California, teaching and gigging around with Mickey and others. Joe’s wife was never happy on the West coast, so he ended up coming back home to Spartanburg.

Mickey was at a Count Bassie concert when he ran into Billy Kreutzmann. The Grateful Dead had been playing for some time, first as a jug band, then a bluegrass band and finally as The Warlocks. Then during The Acid Tests, they became The Grateful Dead. Bill invited Mickey to jam with the band, and the legend has it that the Dead jammed for about eight hours that night, and then called a huddle and unanimously elected Mickey into the band as percussionist.

Joe saw a cover of Rolling Stone magazine right as the band was about to go to Woodstock in 1969. Bennett recognized Hart on the cover, and managed to get in touch with Mickey to congratulate him. That was the last time Bennett and Hart had ever spoken. Until 1995.

Joe’s friend and student (and a buddy of mine) Jim Brown of Spartanburg took it upon himself to reunite the two old friends.

“After some calls and letters, we finally got it arranged where we could meet with Mickey backstage in Charlotte,” recalls Brown. “Joe couldn’t make it, but my wife and son and I ended up with three backstage passes, and got to meet everybody in the Dead except Jerry, unfortunately. But during the intermission, we got Joe on the phone with Mickey, and they talked for quite a while. In fact, intermission that night was over thirty minutes long because Joe was talking to Mickey about old times.” 

Between 1971 and 1981, Joe returned home to Spartanburg to teach guitar, serving some 250-300 students weekly, while authoring a text book, Joe Bennett’s Guitar in the Rock Mode.  In 1988 he moved to Alaska to do some work as an air traffic controller, write music, and explore the Alaskan wilds.  He recently returned home to Spartanburg to teach guitar once again, while still churning out original music.  Joe feels very strongly about his home town, as well as the plethora of musicians that have come out of Spartanburg.

“I gotta tell you something.  We traveled a lot, and then I went in the Air Force and traveled a lot, but pound-for -pound, this area, and I’d say Spartanburg in particular, has more really good pickers than I’ve ever seen in one place. It’s like a little Nashville.  There’s something about the area that motivates people to play the guitar. You know, there was a guy named Hank Garland, one of the jazz greats.  He was the first one to come out of Spartanburg and become famous, really.  And then there was Buck Trent, and Bobby Thompson, who is one of the super session men in Nashville now.  And there were others, Dale Burgess, Rusty Milner, who plays with the Marshall Tucker Band now, and Stuart Swanlund.  I taught a lot of these guys.  There are so many, like Rick Willis, who is the absolute number one blues man in Spartanburg right now. And then there’s Ronald Radford, who played with Randy Travis, another great player.  There are so many who will come in here in their greasy work clothes and pull one off the wall and smoke it for a while and then go back to work.  A lot of people are content to just get together and jam, and have fun, and that’s okay too.”

These days, Joe Bennett can be found, most days, teaching guitar in Spartanburg. He still has a passion for the instrument, and the people who play it.

 “Here’s where we have problems with musicians around here. Most of them are good cover people.They can play other peoples licks, but they can’t make any money at it.  But they become so influenced by it, that when they do go to do original stuff, it comes out as a warmed over version of the player they’ve been listening too.  Now, I’ll be honest with you - Toy Caldwell, playing with that thumb, that was totally original.  Nobody else did that.  Wes Montgomery was the closest anyone came.  But that was how he got his own sound.  With my particular stuff, I was playing horn licks on the guitar. In those days, there weren’t any guitar licks to copy.  I listened to Bill Haley and the Comets. I also listened to a lot of country music.  I cut my teeth on country, and we were rockabilly - we had the two part harmony, me and Sparky - we were sort of a rock and roll Everly Brothers.  It was just a lot of fun.”

Keep it Real. Keep it Southern.


Visit The Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Our Buddy Bob Timmers, Curator


Much of this material appeared in the book Carolina Dreams © Michael Buffalo Smith, Marhsall Tucker Entertainment Publishing


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Howfer says...

Wow. I was in a band in the 80's - CRUIS-O-MATIC out of Atlanta - that played Black Slacks, and all I knew about it was Joe Bennet & the Sparkletones had the original hit. I had no idea he was still alive. Great article, Buff!

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